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Native Wildflowers of the North Dakota Grasslands

JPG -- species photo

Maximilian Sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)


Likely an original resident of every county in North Dakota, Maximilian sunflower was restricted in pristine times to the grasslands and foothills that stretch from Saskatchewan to Texas, at elevations under 7,000 ft. The species has since spread, either adventitiously or through escape from cultivation, to many eastern states.

In our area, Maximilian sunflower grows about three to six feet tall. The plant grows best in the low prairie zone in swales and around wetlands. The narrow, partially folded leaves are three to six inches long. About three to six flower heads, each two to three inches wide, grow on stalks at the top of the plant. Unlike our common and sand sunflower, Maximilian sunflower is a perennial that arises in dense clumps from heavy roots. Fruits are achenes about 1/8-inch long.

Maximilian sunflower is eaten by livestock. The thick sections of the roots were consumed by the Sioux and other tribes of native Americans. Sunflowers typify the family (Asteraceae) to which they belong. Aster means "star" in Greek, in reference to the radiate arrangement of the flowers in the heads. Botanists compounded the generic name Helianthus from the Greek helios, "the sun" and anthos, "a flower." There are about 60 species of Helianthus, native to the New World.

This sunflower was discovered by the wealthy German nobleman-scientist Prinz Maximilian von Wied-Neuwied who, accompanied by the talented Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, in 1832-1834 collected invaluable biological and anthropological material along the Upper Missouri River. The pair spent an entire winter at Fork Clark and the Mandan and Hidatsa Knife River villages. The species was officially described for science in 1835 by the distinguished German botanist at Gottingen, Professor Heinrich Schrader.


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